Sun, Dec 09, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Macron blinks as ‘yellow vest’ protests force fuel tax climbdown

Members of the grassroots groups said the protests would not die down following concessions from the Cabinet, dismissing a six-month suspension of the president’s tax plans as ‘crumbs’

By Gregory Viscusi and Helene Fouquet  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Constance Chou

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has prided himself on sticking to his guns even as his popularity levels tumbled, has reversed course and suspended a planned fuel-tax hike that sent as many as 300,000 protesters into the streets for three weeks, with vivid images of the violent clashes in the heart of Paris making their rounds worldwide.

In addition to concerns about its consequences for French finances, the retreat raises questions about a set of reforms that Macron has planned for next year, which involve sure-to-be unpopular changes to unemployment insurance and a unification of France’s retirement systems.

Members of the grassroots group staging the protests, dubbed the “yellow vests,” have already said that the measures announced on Tuesday would not be enough to end the protests.

In a TV address to the nation on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that the government would suspend for six months planned increases in gasoline and diesel taxes, hikes in gas and electricity tariffs, and the phasing out of tax breaks for tractor diesel.

A three-month national debate is to start on Saturday next week on how to fight climate change without hurting French pocketbooks.

“No tax merits putting our nation’s unity in danger,” Philippe said. “We have made propositions, maybe they aren’t perfect. Let’s talk, let’s improve them. I’m ready.”

Philippe did not address many of the other demands raised by the “yellow vest” protesters — including an additional increase in the minimum wage. Still, the climbdown is a rare retreat by Macron, whose approval ratings have sunk partly because of a view among many French that he does not listen.

Macron has consistently defended the higher gasoline taxes, saying that they are needed to wean the country off fossil fuels and have been compensated for by cuts to payroll taxes.

Philippe said that the fight against climate change would continue and he would not raise the overall tax burden or allow the country’s debt to rise.

Speaking in Brussels, French Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire said that it was too early to say how the measures would affect France’s finances, “but a path has been set by the president — which is to respect our European commitments, reduce spending, reduce debt and reduce taxes.”

“This course will be kept,” Le Maire added.

The cost of the tax freezes is estimated at about 2 billion euros (US$2.28 billion), daily Le Parisien reported, without saying how it obtained the information.

Minister of Ecology Francois de Rugy on Friday last week told RMC radio that a three-month moratorium on planned fuel-tax hikes, less than what Philippe announced, would lower government revenue by 650 million euros.

Any tax cuts and spending increases to mollify the protesters would raise further uncertainty over the path of the French budget deficit, which is already heading close to the 3 percent limit imposed by the EU.

“Clearly the French don’t want new taxes or higher taxes, and we can’t leave new debts for our children,” Philippe said. “When you put French people of good intentions around a table they find solutions.”

Some “yellow vests” said that the measures were not enough.

“We didn’t want a suspension, we want the past increase in the tax on fuels to be canceled immediately,” Benjamin Cauchy, an early organizer of the grassroots group, said on BFM TV. “Suspending the tax to reinstate it in six months is taking the French people for a ride. French people aren’t sparrows waiting for crumbs from the government.”

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